TOPEKA, Kan. — Officials in a college town in conservative western Kansas are embracing a mask ordinance in hopes of making residents and incoming students feel safe, even as surrounding communities have balked at such efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
City officials in Hays, home to Fort Hays State University, voted last week to require people to wear masks in public. The response in the community has been mixed since the ordinance took effect Monday, with some businesses offering masks and refusing to serve customers who won't wear them and others letting customers come in without them.
"In Hays we brag about how safe and clean we are all the time and I want to make darn sure I can do anything I can to keep that reputation," said Mayor Shaun Musil, who voted for the ordinance and also owns a wine bar in the city of 20,800 people some 270 miles west of Kansas City.
Hays is in an area of the state where Republican lawmakers pushed back against the Democratic governor's springtime stay-at-home orders and more recent efforts to mandate masks statewide to combat the coronavirus. Ellis County, where Hays is located, opted out of Gov. Laura Kelly's executing order requiring residents to wear masks, something communities can do as a result of a compromise between Kelly and the Republican-led Legislature.
Musil said that since the ordinance, almost everyone who has entered his bar, The Paisley Pear, has worn a face mask.
"I know a lot of people say we are taking their rights away, and I can see where they see it that way, but I don't believe we're taking their rights away," Musil said, noting that many businesses refuse service to customers not wearing shoes or a shirt.
The Hays City Commission voted 4-1 on July 23 to approve the mask requirement. The ordinance includes exemptions for people with medical conditions that might make it hard to breathe in a mask. Fort Hays State, where students are scheduled to return on Aug. 17, also plans to require masks on campus.
For now, Hays law enforcement is trying to educate people about the new rule instead of imposing fines. First-time violations could bring fines and fees of up to $125, Deputy Chief of Police Brian Dawson said.
Some people in the community say masks are a small price to pay to protect the health of those most vulnerable. Fort Hays State senior Anniston Weber told city commissioners that she felt like she was "begging for my life" for them to approve the mask ordinance. Weber said in an interview that she learned this month she had a rare blood vessel disorder and is immunocompromised.
"I would rather be uncomfortable for the hour that I am out shopping or supporting local businesses than I would if I could've saved someone by wearing a mask," Weber told commissioners.
Hays resident Elizabeth Schmiedler opposes the ordinance and is avoiding stores that require masks. She said she worries about freedoms being "eroded."
Ellis County has seen 130 confirmed cases of the COVID-19 virus, according to the state health department, with one death. On Friday, Kansas had seen 27,812 confirmed cases, up 942 from Wednesday, when case totals were last reported, and 358 deaths, up nine. The number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick.
Kelly's executive order issued on July 2 calls for people to wear masks in indoor public places and outdoors where social distancing isn't possible. As of Friday, the Kansas Association of Counties said 15 of 105 counties have mask mandates. Several larger communities, including Wichita and Shawnee County, home to the state capital Topeka, have them.